Hibs may not quite have brought the juggernaut that is Hearts to a shuddering halt, but Alan Stubbs’ side certainly ensured the short trip across the Capital was the most uncomfortable journey the Gorgie outfit have endured this season.
The Jambo fans, though, would have cared little for the 90 minutes and more which preceded the stunning strike from Alim Ozturk which sparked wild celebrations among the away support, one which kept their unbeaten start intact and allowed them to ignore the reality that for much of this match they had been distinctly second best to their arch rivals.
With 14 points separating the clubs before kick-off, many in maroon had seen the second Edinburgh derby of the season as no more than a formality.
Ozturk’s goal – a fantastic drive from almost 40 yards which dipped and swerved before clipping the underside of Mark Oxley’s crossbar and nestling in the net – let them indulge themselves in chants of “we are unbeatable” but, if they were honest, they’d acknowledge that record could easily have evaporated.
“If there is any justice we would have won,” insisted Stubbs, an opinion with which few would have disagreed, but the Hibs boss discovered, as many of his predecessors have down the years, that the team in green can be the better side and yet fail to get their just rewards.
It was a fact Stubbs acknowledged, saying: “Football is a very cruel world. It’s possibly one of the harshest environments that you can be in because you do not always get what you deserve.
“We deserved to win. I do not think anyone could deny that.”
But while conceding it was bitterly disappointing to be denied his first derby victory in such a fashion, Stubbs insisted he wouldn’t be sharing the view that it felt like a defeat. He said: “Not a chance. I was proud of my players.
“They gave what I asked of them, we went toe-to-toe with them, shoulder-to-shoulder with them. I said all along that there was nothing in the first game and I felt we were the better team in this one.”
While Hibs’ desire in such matches had been called into question in the days leading up to this match, Stubbs’ players, as they had insisted throughout the week, had no inferiority complex, content that they were on the right lines themselves having embarked on a run of five games undefeated, a record which included wins away against Rangers and Premiership outfit Ross County.
And it showed, with Dylan McGeouch and Scott Allan finding pockets of space to keep Robbie Neilson’s side on the backfoot as the early chances fell to the men in green, Dominique Malonga’s touch taking the ball from the path of Danny Handling as he looked certain to test goalkeeper Neil Alexander before forcing the Hearts No.1 into an instinctive save.
A mix-up between Alexander and his skipper Danny Wilson should have led to the opener, the hesitation as they decided who should deal with an innocuous through ball giving Jason Cummings the opportunity to nick it from them.
The ball fell for Malonga, who had time and space to walk it into the empty net, but he appeared to panic, prodding his shot wide. Such profligacy has come back to bite Hibs on several occasions this season and it almost did so again, Paul Hanlon misjudging the flight of Callum Paterson’s long ball to leave Soufian El Hassnaoui with only Oxley to beat.
But the on-loan Hull City star stood “big” and pulled off an important save before Hibs eventually got the reward they probably felt they deserved.
Allan’s corner was headed down by Liam Fontaine for Cummings to turn and rifle in a low shot which looked destined for the corner of the net only for Billy King to block. Alexander then attempted to get something on the loose ball, but not enough to prevent Malonga making up for his earlier miss by thrashing it into the roof of the net.
It was the first time Hearts had been behind this season, and they could have been in further trouble, Allan providing a cross which Malonga glanced wide before another enterprising run from the midfielder was halted just inches outside the penalty area by Prince Buaben.
“You would always like another goal,” admitted Stubbs, although it looked as if one might just be enough despite Hearts turning the screw, their cause not helped by a reckless challenge by Paterson, the full back scything down Malonga from behind with a crude lunge.
However, the sight of four additional minutes on the board of the fourth official brought, in equal measure, cheers from the Hearts fans and groans from the Hibs support. They’d all seen this movie before.
But while Ozturk’s thundering shot might well have been unstoppable, it was certainly preventable, Malonga pulling out of the challenge as the ball bounced between him and Alexander, allowing the goalkeeper to pat it away with Buaben quickly switching it to his team-mate. The concession of a free-kick at that stage would have broken the game up, although, to be fair, probably every Hibs player was urging Ozturk to have a shot believing there was no way he could score.
However, as has happened throughout the years, Hearts when in such a situation in a derby almost unceasingly find a way to strike.
Stubbs insisted there was no blame to attach to Oxley, describing questions to that effect as “crazy,” before adding: “The lad will hit another 999 shots and none of them will be on target. It’s one of them. He has hit a ‘worldy’ and it’s flown in.”
Having said that, however, Stubbs refused to “harp on” about the quality of Ozturk’s shot, preferring to concentrate on the performance of his team.
He said: “I thought we were outstanding from the first whistle to the last.
“I am proud of my players, proud of that performance. Not bad for a poor team.”
Asked what he meant by that, Stubbs replied: “I think it’s one of them things, sometimes when we win we lose. It’s the negativity around the place, but I think we were fantastic.
“Their intelligence, the bravery to get on the ball, the way we took the game to them. I thought the desire, the work-rate, the performance typified the group of players I have got.
“I have said all along it will take a bit of time, but I think anyone watching us over the past six weeks will know where we will be in the last six weeks of the season.”